Congress is on a glidepath to Christmas, with turbulence ahead

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By all indications, Congress this week will have managed to keep a streak going. It will get the National Defense Authorization Act to the president’s desk before the end of the calendar year. Beyond that? Bloomberg Government’s Loren Duggan joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And I guess the reason they can do this is because of almost a pre-approved version of it, that the House passed last week.

Loren Duggan: That’s right. So as we saw the House passed its version of that bill earlier this year, the Senate bogged down when they couldn’t agree on its version where to limit the amendment. So they basically set that whole process aside, the House and Senate Armed Services Committee came up with a compromise the way they normally would behind closed doors, and presented that first in the House to to have its membership approve it, which they did last week by a pretty wide bipartisan margin, and send that over to the Senate, which is poised to clear it sometime this week. Not everyone is happy with this version of the bill, which happens with a compromise. But it looks like it will get over the finish line, get to President Biden’s desk and be signed. So that’s really important, more than six decades streak here is kept alive, which no one wants to be the House or Senate Armed Services Chairman that doesn’t get that bill done and break that streak, obviously.

Tom Temin: I think one of the things people were unhappy about was the not moving the adjudication of criminal activity in the Defense Department out of the Defense Department’s judicial system and get it into the regular courts

Loren Duggan: There was some disappointment about that. And this a lot of this touches on how sexual assault claims are handled. Kirsten Gillibrand, the senator has gotten bipartisan support in the Senate for a standalone bill to make a number of changes here. But those final changes were not incorporated into the version that’s coming up in the Senate this week. She says she’s going to try again, on her version, she’s called it filibuster proof because she has enough support to overcome that, if it came to the floor, came for a vote on its own. But as we saw, she never had the chance to offer that amendment on the Senate floor because they didn’t get there. And it seems unlikely she will this time around either. But there’s next year’s bill and the year after that. And I don’t think she’s going to stop. This bill does make changes to the way that the Code of Military Justice handles things like sexual harassment, some sexual assault, but there’s more that advocates would like to see. So it’s kind of a mixed bag there for those changes that a lot of people have been calling for.

Tom Temin: And what might happen in the next couple of weeks with respect to clearing nominees by the Biden administration, there’s a bucket of hundreds of them, correct that are just not through the pipeline of the Senate. This is not because of lack of nomination, but lack of Senate activity.

Loren Duggan: That’s right. And every time the Senate processes, a couple more come over from the White House, which is still sending names up for a number of jobs. These aren’t necessarily obviously not cabinet secretaries who have been in place for a long time. But sometimes assistant secretaries or ambassadors or boards and commissions. We’re gonna see action both at the committee level and the floor level this week in the Senate on these. Robert Califf to head the FDA is going to be a big one with the committee proceeding this week. But what’s happening is a lot of behind the scenes work to try to sequence these so ones that are out of committee or maybe even had a tie vote in committee. Charles Schumer, the Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, the Minority Leader, are working on a path forward. There are some that are just going to take time because they have to process them and get cloture to limit debate, they’ll work out a sequence of votes. But there’s also packages of less controversial ones that will go by unanimous consent. One of the key challenges here is that there are Republicans who are holding up some of these nominations. For example, there are a lot of holes in the State Department because Ted Cruz and others want to see certain policy changes made. They can’t stop these nominees, because as long as there’s 50 votes to cut off debate and confirm them, they can move forward. But every minute of floor time right now at the end of the year is precious. And they’re not going to try to push too many of those forward, given the other legislative and executive work they need to do. So I think we’ll see a lot we’ll see probably a big healthy package get through before the end of the year. But some of this is going to kick into next year as well.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Loren Dugan, deputy news director at Bloomberg Government. And where do we stand on the debt ceiling. That’s the other big scary thing that sort of falls out of the sky every year.

Loren Duggan: That is one that’s fallen on this twice. This is the second go round on this. There was significant progress last week, though, because Senate and House leaders agreed on a process and put that into a bill that was cleared by the Senate Thursday night before it left for the weekend. And what this bill does is say when the Senate takes up a debt limit bill, presumably this week, it only needs a simple majority to pass, which is a big deal. What has happened here is Republicans in the Senate and said they want Democrats to do this themselves. They say you’ve you’ve written the spending bills this year, if you need to increase the debt limit you need to do with your votes. That had initially looked like there would be another round of budget reconciliation to set that up. They abandoned that in favor of this expedited procedure, which the House signed off on and then the Senate signed off on. So as soon as the Senate takes this up, passes it they’ll send it over to the House which will presumably clear it pretty quickly, get that to President Biden’s desk and take this off the plate for a year or so. This is an issue that will be revisited either late 2022, or 2023. But it’s one that makes a lot of people nervous, because if the government can no longer finance its operations, will there be choices of what bills to pay or not pay? And the threat of default hangs over that. ultimately, if it got to that point.

Tom Temin: Yes, because the greater economy is said to be in danger if the United States as an entity, internationally defaults on its debts.

Loren Duggan: Absolutely. And most of these warnings come from Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, whose department is the one making choices. And even right now they’re using extraordinary measures as they’re known, which means they don’t invest in certain funds or make other decisions before they hit the debt limit so they can try to keep operations financed and going. That date when she will run out of that ability is kind of up in the air a little bit, but her date has been December 15, which is Wednesday. So that’s why there’s some pressure to do this, get it done, move on, and then tackle this other business.

Tom Temin: And then there is the issue of this big other spending bill, the Build Back Better bill, the triple B bill, with lots of triple B bonds, I guess, to back it up. What is going on there now? That seems to be a merry go round that’s kind of slowing down a little bit.

Loren Duggan: Well, the House has passed its version Senate over to the Senate, which is doing a couple of things. The committees of jurisdiction are coming up with their own versions, in some cases, looking at provisions that they don’t like in the House’s approach at or they need to tweak for some reason. There’s also this process of because it’s a budget reconciliation bill, it has to comply with the Byrd Rule, named after Robert Byrd, and lends itself to a lot of puns. So a lot of these provisions have been going through a Byrd bath, which is when the Senate parliamentarian works with staff to figure out if the provisions in these bills comply with those rules. So a lot of behind the scenes work is going on there, writing legislative language, checking it through this process, getting it scored by the CBO, Congressional Budget Office and seeing if this is a package they can pull together. The thing hanging over all of this is do they have the 50 votes they need to get onto this bill and then to pass it. Joe Manchin has said many times that he’s not 100% comfortable with this package, may not be comfortable with passing it this year. So I think there’s going to be tough calls in the coming days over whether they can do this before Christmas, which is a goal that Senate Majority Leader Schumer has said that the White House would like to see, or if it’s something that might slip into 2022.

Tom Temin: And with respect to Christmas and the New Year, what is the schedule look like for them?

Loren Duggan: Well, we’re sort of in a gray area here, because a lot of the initial schedules have been leaving even last Friday. That was the House’s case, they are in this week to deal with the debt limit issue and a few other things. But I would say if they can wrap up that limit, they wrap up NDAA, then they will have some calls on does the Senate stay around for some more nominations? Do they have the BUild Back Better reconciliation bill ready to go? We’re watching this very closely. I know a lot of people in town base their own travel plans that the holidays around Congress’s travel plan. So it’s a little bit up in the air, but we may see them here into next week or a couple more weeks. Maybe they’ll take a break between Christmas and New Year. But January 10, is the date that the House has circled in next year for returning. So even if they go away for a couple of weeks, they’ll be back pretty early in the new year at this again.

Tom Temin: Yes, because they do have the continuing resolution that is still in place. And that’s only till February 18. So it’s not like they’ve got months and months on that front. And we could probably be heading to maybe a full year CR, seems to be the owner of all of this.

Loren Duggan: That’s been an option that some Republicans have wanted lock in the Trump budget for the rest of the fiscal year, locking the writers because that’s the other part some of the policy writers have come into play here. Rosa DeLauro, the House Appropriations Chairwoman and her committee have been sending out letters from different constituencies about the need to get back to the table, negotiate a final package, get full year appropriations done. Not a CR but actual bills that allocate all the money to all the departments and agencies. So there will be pressure to try to get to a deal there. But some of the same things that have hung over this the whole year are going to persist into next year to top line numbers, what policy writers how to allocate funds. So a lot to decide there by February 18, which is kind of the new big date we’re circling for a lot of activity around.

Tom Temin: Loren Dugan is deputy news director of Bloomberg Government. As always, thanks so much.

Loren Duggan: Thank you.

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